Finding the sacred in the secular

Bring your holiness to work with you

I turned down a job at a Catholic social service organization for a position at a pharmaceutical company.

Scandalous for a Christian, right?

Nah. It’s a lesson I’ve been learning my entire career.

One of the biggest challenges of my spiritual journey has been to resist the myth that faith-based workplaces are somehow holier or better than secular workplaces.

We’ve all seen it in our diocesan newspapers, on television, online: praise and adulation for those who have chucked the corporate rat race to work for a charity, to go overseas to help the poor, to use their corporate skills to assist a social service agency.

Don’t get me wrong; those people should be praised. But so should the ones who go to toil at their corporate jobs day in and day out. They bring their faith, their joy, their integrity with them into their office buildings. They can be saints in secular workplaces just as well, maybe even better, than non-profit or faith-based settings.

In my own case, I’ve labored in parishes that were far more dysfunctional than the corporations where I’ve worked. The human resources practices at some of these faith-based organizations seemed to be right out of the 1950s. The approaches to things like work-life balance, conflict management, and constructive feedback on performance were like night and day. And don’t even get me started on the low pay.

The reality is that God has called each of us to a vocation, so it’s God’s call we need to follow, not society’s expectations. As St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Are all apostles? Are all teachers? Are all prophets?” In a word, no. God knows where we can best use the talents we have been given. It’s our job to discern where that is and to tune out society’s expectations when we do.

Some of the saints with reputations for great holiness worked in the kitchen or greeted guests at the door. They knew that these simple tasks, often considered mundane or lowly in the eyes of the world, were carrying out the will of God if done in loving service. Those saints often attracted people from great distances who were drawn to them because of their holiness. Sometimes that holiness resulted in miracles.

St. Andre Bessette is a great, recent example. This humble Christian Brother had little formal education but a very deep prayer life. For 40 years he served as a porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal. His prayers, invoking the intercession of St. Joseph, brought about many cures. People would bring their sick to the college to pray with the lowly doorkeeper. When St. Andre died in 1937, it’s said that a million people gathered for his funeral.

We have the same potential to attract in our modern workplaces, although maybe not so dramatically. But we don’t get that message from society. Sometimes we don’t even get that message from the Church. Even so, it’s a successful formula for our lives as Christians: Respond to God’s call wherever that call takes you, bloom where you’re planted, perform your duties with selflessness, integrity, charity, and, yes, even joy.

Those qualities attract, and they are sorely needed in a society steeped in selfishness, pessimism, and cynicism.

“Do small things with great love.” Those words of Mother Teresa summarize our calling.